08 September 2006

Not "once upon a time" BUT "Here with us"

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Rom 8.28-30 and Matt1.18-23
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

There is no “Once upon a time…” in the Catholic faith, no “Long ago and far away…” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the New Covenant, the Father of all creation operates in history for our salvation—dates, times, places, people, events—real history, real stories, faithful narratives of His people struggling to love Him and to be loved by Him. The Eastern Orthodox bishop and theologian, John Zizioulas, writes: “History is the sacrament of Israel’s religion.” Meaning that history, the record of God’s creative and re-creative work in His world, reveals God to us, makes Him better known to us. Through His Word from the Law and the Prophets, through His Word to Mary, our Mother, and through the revelation of the New Covenant in the Word Made Flesh, our Father brings us to Him, reels us in, and gives us new life. The celebration of Mary’s nativity is a celebration of our redemption in history—not an escape from this world in timeless myth but the blessing of this world in Christ’s birth as Lord and Savior.

OK. Why the theology lecture, Father? Here’s why: how easy is it for us to fall into the foggy mush of neo-pagan escapism, the near-Gnostic desire to understand our salvation as some sort of mystical escape from the dirty world, from the heavy stuff of living in bodies that betray our spiritual efforts, and other bodies—you people out there!—who won’t stop sinning, who won’t Do Right and make my work at getting holier easier for me! How quickly and easily we can come to think of our spiritual lives as the difficult work of ridding ourselves of what makes it possible for us to be perfected in God’s love: one another.

If we will be saved together, then we must live together in holiness and that means living in this world, in this history of God’s creation, among His works of beauty and goodness AND among the uglinesses and evils we build from what He has given us. Salvation is not about getting out of here as fast as possible. Salvation is about getting back into the family of God and witnessing, preaching, and teaching His healing Word; living every day, every hour, every minute in thanksgiving, in humble gratitude to Him for your very being, saying “thank you” for the fact of your existence, and the existence of everyone else, all of whom reveal Him to you.

Celebrating our Blessed Mother’s birth exalts her sacrificial fiat, her “let it be done to me” as a moment in history, a real event that calls out her predestined purpose, her prophetic place as the one who gives flesh to the Son. This took place. This took a place. An event with a location and a time. It took place to fulfill what the Lord had said in His Word through the prophet. And b/c it was done to her according to His Word and her Yes, the child is named Emmanuel, God-With-Us. And He is with us—in His family gathered here, in His priests, in His sacrifice of the altar, in His history, and in His Church.

If and when you are tempted by the devil of spiritual escapism—a spirit that tempts us with the false notion that we must get away from the dirt and the ugliness and sordidness of created things, especially other people, in order to be saved—if and when you are tempted by this devil, give thanks for Mary’s birth. Give thanks for her fiat. Give thanks to her for bearing Jesus and bringing the Word to us. And remember that God is with us—not “once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away,” but right now, right here loving us through His family. Loving us back to Him until he comes again.

06 September 2006

Speak a word of healing

22nd Week OT (W): 1 Cor 3.1-9 and Luke 4.38-44
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

When you think about being sick or being well and not doing well spiritually and doing very well spiritually, do you think about how your body feeds your soul and how your soul animates—gives life to—your body? Since the human person is a body/soul—not a machine with a ghost inside!—but a composite of flesh and bone and animated life, there must be a some basic connection between being physically or spiritually diseased or healthy. After all, it is no accident that Jesus both preaches and heals, proclaims his healing Word and restores health to the afflicted. It is for this purpose that he was sent.

Cancer, infection, catastrophic injury. Useless anxiety, wounded empathy, and all-consuming narcissism. These are all demons, all maladies who speak too often and say too much, robbing us of our ease, our fitness and vigor. But what power do they have over us when we are focused on our purpose? How can they wound us, infect us, trouble us at all when we are living the life of Christ, when we are rehearsing daily our part in the gospel drama of redemption and growing in holiness?

Jesus rebukes the woman’s fever. Pulls it out of her. He speaks directly to the source of her illness, admonishing the worry and fret to leave her. It does. She rises and serves him. And the word of her healing spreads, bringing the sick from all over. Each is cured and demons are expelled. Isn’t this the pattern of our salvation and the preaching of the Word? Do you recognize it? We are brought to Christ by someone else; we hear his Word spoken; we are healed of our sin, we rise to serve his Body, the Church; the good news spreads; other are healed body and soul—cured of disease and relieved of their demons. And Christ’s purpose is made flesh and bone, given life again in our New Life in him.

We know the sources of most of our physical ailments. Medical science is more than capable of pointing us to the various causes of bodily disease. But what causes our spiritual dis-ease? What grows in us to make us anxious, cold-hearted, self-righteous, disobedient, basically, sinful? Paul tells the Corinthians that they are not yet a spiritual people—they are still fleshy, still infants in Christ. And he knows this b/c they are jealous and contentious, some claiming to be of Paul and some Apollos. They have forgotten their start and their end, their origins and their goal. They don’t know who they are b/c they don’t know where they are going. They have failed to understand that they were made for a purpose and then redeemed to fulfill that purpose.

There is no magic here. I am not suggesting that knowing our divine purpose mystically protects us from car accidents, stomach aches, and the flu; or that we will never feel the touch of a dark spirit. Knowing our divine purpose gives us a point above disease to focus on, a goal, a signpost beyond illness and injury, a future health for which we can reach, and in reaching, grasp with God’s perfecting gifts of love and mercy. We are not abandoned to our sicknesses. Being ill—in body and soul—is never about being forsaken by God. This is our chance to surrender any allegiance to despair, any commitment to something or someone other than Christ. Being ill is the crisis of body and soul that tightens the ear to hear the Word preached, to hear the healing rebuke of Jesus. Now, follow the pattern: spread that healing Word, speak your purpose and gather the crowd around our Christ. We belong to him. We are his field and his co-workers. We are his purpose, his Body--wounded, healed, and finally perfected.

03 September 2006

What Comes Out Matters

22nd Sun: Dt 4.1-2, 6-8; Jas 1.17-18, 21-22, 27; Mk 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas

Eat five fruits and vegetables daily. Drink six to eight 8 oz. glasses of water daily. Don’t skip breakfast. Eat protein and good carbs six times a day. Don’t eat after eight o’clock at night. “Fat-free” doesn’t mean “calorie-free”—read the label! Take smaller portions and chew slowly. Wear a tight belt at meals. Don’t eat alone. Green socks will distract you during meals. Eat left-handed. Stick grapefruit seeds behind your ears to rev-up your metabolism. Watch back to back episodes of the surgery channel while eating—especially when they do the eyes! Eat naked in front of a mirror. Eat with your hands. Let someone else feed you. But under no circumstances are you to allow someone else to feed you while eating naked in front of a mirror wearing green socks with grapefruit seeds stuck behind your ears! That’s just silly. And we don’t want to be silly about what we put into our bodies, do we?

We have our own food-based prohibitions, don’t we? Long lists of what we will and will not eat. Long lists of fatty foods, fried foods, sugary foods, animal-based foods, artificially sweetened foods, high-carb foods, foods made from refined flour, foods from politically suspect countries, foods from politically suspect regions of the country, foods from certain corporations, foods made by non-union workers or maybe made by union workers…all sorts of prohibitions that give breath and voice to the virtues we want to cultivate and the vices we want to kill. There is one list of forbidden foods we do not have, however—a list of naughty foods given to us by God. God says, “Graze freely and fairly and share with those who can’t.” Not a bestseller…but the rule effectively illustrates the point Jesus is making to the Pharisees and scribes.

Once again Jesus finds himself having to teach the teachers of the Law the first meaning of the Law. The scribes and Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of violating the traditions of the elders when they eat without washing their hands. Essentially, the disciples are ignoring the purification rituals done before meals. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus accuses his opponents of ignoring the Father’s commandment to honor Him in their hearts. They are doing little more than offering “lip service,” literally, they are “serving God only with their lips” when they merely ritually wash their hands. It’s a show. To be seen. A show to be seen by those who expect public displays of piety, religious theatre in plain view.

In opposition to this, Jesus teaches: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” This is not a simple reversal of conventional social values. Jesus isn’t “turning things upside down.” He is simply teaching the Law as it was given and showing now how it has matured: righteousness with God is a right relationship offered in love, accepted in total awe, and lived in the service of others. We are completed in God’s love and by God’s love as we use our God-given gifts to serve others. If you find yourself obsessed with the regulatory minutiae, the picayune procedure, the jots and tittles of public religiosity, you might want to consider again the passage from Isaiah that Jesus quotes to the Pharisees: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”

So, how do we honor God with our hearts and not just our lips? How do we worship Him in the true Spirit with love?

We hear in the letter of James: to honor God the Father with His Son through the Holy Spirit, we come to see that everything we have and everything we are is His gift to us. We come to see that He gave us birth by the word of truth, that we are knitted together with the every breath of truth and pushed out into the world graced as the firstfruits of His creation. We humbly welcome, we joyously receive the Word planted in us, that spirit of beauty and goodness that God completes in His love and that comes to save our souls. We are doers of this Word in the world not just hearers of it. We make His Word real, we give His word in us hands and feet, lips and tongues. We give His Word function, practicality, work, purpose, and finished goals. If His word remains in us unused, it will become a fragile thing easily broken by sin, quickly shattered by private doubt, or perhaps die from lack of charitable attention. And if we feed His Word nothing more than religiosity, mere ritual and mechanical prayer, or even worse, superstition dressed up as devotion, we risk blasphemy by using His name vainly, using His name to no purpose other than public show.

Pure religion, that is, a clean relationship with God is both interior and exterior, one leading the other and the other pushing the first: you serving others to serve God and you keep yourself undefiled by the world, unmoved by the prizes the world seeks after. Murder, theft, adultery, idolatry, folly, greed all come from within, all come from a heart darkened by a will untamed in truth and beauty, a heart closed to the Word planted in its muscle. To strengthen that Word, to bring it fresh blood and clean air, open your ears to hear, open your eyes to see; hear and see the Gospel, the whole Gospel of love that Christ preached—our perfection in obedience to the Father’s will, our completion as vigorous members of the Body, our growth as men and women in love with being servants to one another, and our joy in honoring Him who made us His people, His nation, His prophets and His priests.

To do him honor, purify your heart with a clean sacrifice of service, a spotless gift of unselfish work for someone who needs your hands for their own good. It is not enough that we carefully attend to the religious duties and the canonical obligations of being Catholics. We can certainly start there, but if we will mature beyond needing the spiritual training wheels of the Law, if we would worship the Lord in Spirit and in Truth, in the fullness of His revelation and His perfecting grace, we will seek Him, find, Him, and serve Him, for His greater glory, among those thrown out, cast off, abandoned, and shamed. If we will do Him honor as your Father and Lord, we will uncover His forgiving Word, reveal His love, and put His compassion to work for the weakest among us. On the cross, He made Himself the least among us to serve us. Now, to serve the least is to serve the best.

What goes in—food, ritual, Law—all matter but not finally. What comes out measures your soul, weighs your spirit against the promises you’ve made. Eating naked in front of a mirror takes some courage. Standing naked before the Lord…well, that takes more than courage; that takes trust…and bruises and skinned knees and dirty hands and a sunburn and some sweat. It also takes the humility to say without flinching: how may I serve?!